Florida quarterback Chris Leak chooses his words as carefully as he chooses his audibles. So when he talks, his teammates respond.
"If he says hi to you, you get excited," sophomore linebacker Channing Crowder said. "You listen to him. If somebody talks too much, you kind of put it in the wind. If somebody like him gets enough courage to be vocal, it's important."
Leak is the Gators' calm, passive yin to Crowder's fiery, loquacious yang. The sophomores balance the leadership burden for a team stocked with young talent but not entirely sure of its direction.
Only a scant few players remain from Florida's 2000 SEC championship team, so this year's Gators will suit up without the title expectations that either lifted or buried past Florida teams. But make no mistake, expectations remain high.
After consecutive 8–5 seasons, the volume of the "noise in the system" coach Ron Zook spoke of last year has crept upward. The Gators could silence that noise, or it could turn deafening if they continue to hover near the eight-win mark.
If Leak and Crowder's teammates follow suit, Florida could find itself back in a familiar spot -- in the Georgia Dome the first weekend in December.
Leak has improved after a freshman season in which he went 6–3 as the starter, but he will only throw as far as his receivers and first-year offensive coordinator Larry Fedora's scheme will allow.
"We're running the same system," said Fedora, who replaced Ed Zaunbrecher following Zaunbrecher's demotion to quarterbacks coach. "We've tweaked some things and changed some things, but it's the same system for the guys."
If spring scrimmages are any indication, Fedora has opened up the offense by modifying some formations and giving Leak a chance to throw more downfield. Possibly, Leak and the other offensive players opened the offense themselves by mastering the system quickly.
Crowder has an equally important responsibility. He must help an experienced front seven -- which includes some of the nation's best linebackers -- relieve pressure on a secondary that needs four new starters.
Despite missing two games last year, Crowder finished second on the team with 106 tackles. He also can destroy plays even without making the tackle, either by disrupting blocking schemes or by chasing the quarterback on blitzes. Zook seems most impressed by Crowder's ability to play like a tornado every down, whether during games or at practice.
"The maturity level that Channing has shown is a little bit uncanny," Zook said. "He's doing the things you expect great players to do."
Leak has developed in similar fashion. But for Florida to be great, their teammates need to follow Leak's and Crowder's examples.
OffenseThe Gators will rise or fall with Leak, who will enter this season with a luxury he didn't have last year -- experience. Thrown in as the starter just months after his high school graduation, Leak occasionally looked like a true freshman. Now that he's had a season and a spring to develop chemistry with his receivers, backs and line, Leak should look more comfortable in the offense.
The Gators have three backs -- DeShawn Wynn, Ciatrick Fason and Skyler Thornton -- who would be welcome on any roster in the top 25. Wynn and Fason should duke it out for the starting job, while the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Thornton showed flashes of brilliance near the goal line this spring.
The Gators haven't had a classic go-to receiver since Jabar Gaffney, but several of the current crop -- such as Andre Caldwell and Dallas Baker -- seem capable of winning that title.
Though the Gators lost two studs in guard Shannon Snell and tackle Max Starks, they return their anchor, junior center Mike Degory. Degory has started all 26 games of his college career, and he should provide steady leadership on a line with a few new faces.
DefenseCoaches may have struck gold when they found defensive end Jeremy Mincey at a Mississippi junior college. The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder rushes relentlessly and could terrorize opposing quarterbacks. Inside, tackle Marcus Thomas should be fully recovered after hernia surgery in the spring, and sophomore Ray McDonald looks ready to build on a solid freshman year.
Crowder leads a trio that could be one of the SEC's most disruptive. Crowder, Earl Everett and Travis Harris, moved from defensive end, are interchangeable at all three positions, and all three are fast, strong and smart. Despite missing two games last season, Crowder finished second on the team with 106 tackles. He also can destroy plays without making the tackle, either by disrupting blocking schemes or chasing the quarterback on blitzes.
New secondary coach Dan Disch faces the difficult task of finding four new starters, most notably All-America corner Keiwan Ratliff.
SpecialistsPunter Eric Wilbur averaged 44.8 yards per boot as a freshman, but Zook said in the spring that Nick Fleming would get a crack at the starting job. Florida's most glaring special teams need is a replacement for the explosive Ratliff. Caldwell and cornerback Vernell Brown are candidates.
Final AnalysisFlorida may have one of its most athletically gifted teams in years, but how those athletes will respond to game pressure is the great unknown.
The Gators will have a chance to find out Sept. 18 when they face Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. If they can beat the Volunteers, the Gators have a chance to be 5–0 entering the Oct. 9 home game against LSU. That game -- and the Oct. 30 matchup with Georgia in Jacksonville -- should determine whether Florida will have a chance to play for its first SEC title since 2000.